Operant Conditioning

Pavlov had many early admirers in America. John B. Watson, who gave behaviorism its name, studied Pavlovian conditioning early in the 20th Century. However, by the 1940s and 1950s American psychologists spent most of their time studying operant conditioning, a form of learning distinct from Pavlov's. Operant conditioning does not involve triggering reflexes. Operant conditioning involves exploratory or goal-seeking actions and their consequences.

Many of today's students have heard about operant conditioning. It is typified by the rat in a Skinner Box (itself named after B.F. Skinner, a leading proponent of operant conditioning). The rat presses a lever that sticks out from the side of the cage. The goal is to obtain food reinforcement.

Distinguishing Between Operant and Classical Conditioning

Here are some contrasts between classical and operant conditioning.

What are differences between classical and operant conditioning?

Classical vs. Operant conditionings

How are the concepts of "elicited" and "respondent" behavior related?

How does operant conditioning contrast with Pavlovian or classical conditioning? Classical conditioning always involves anticipatory biological responses triggered by a signal. The response is drawn out of the organism or elicited. In operant conditioning, by contrast, the animal generates the behavior on its own, as a way of achieving a goal. The behavior is emitted.

Operant conditioning always involve behavior, which is basically the same thing as activity. A behavior reinforced or punished in operant conditioning is called an operant.

Biologically, classical conditioning is more likely to involve the autonomic nervous system—the one response for gut reactions and emotions. Operant conditioning is more likely to involve large-scale motor movements of the sort humans consider voluntary. As discussed earlier in this chapter, memory for classically conditioned responses occurs throughout the nervous system at the neural level, while memory for patterns of operant responses (i.e. complex non-instinctive behavior) typically requires the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for event memory.

The two forms of conditioning are intermingled within the living organism, and they are not always conceptually distinct even to human psychologists. For example, each successful reinforcement in operant conditioning (such as giving a food pellet to a rat) triggers a reflex such as swallowing food. Operant and classical conditioning effects are mingled in course of normal animal behavior. Some behaviors, such as key pecking in the pigeon, can be studied as reflexes or as operants with equal success.

However, for the beginning student, the challenge is to tell these two forms of conditioning apart. Usually the easiest way to do that is to look for a reflex: a biological, born-in stimulus-response circuit. If the reflex is activated by a signal, then one is talking about classical conditioning. If the animal is engaging in something like exploratory or strategic activity followed by payoff or a punishment, then one is talking about operant conditioning.

What is a formal definition of operant?

Technically, an operant is defined as one of a class of behaviors thatoperate on the environment in an equivalent way. For example, a pigeon pecks a key. This is an example of the key peck operant, because the pigeon operates on the environment. Even if it kicks the key with its foot instead of pecking it, the operant is the same. An operant is defined by its effect.

Perhaps the most-studied operant in American psychology is the bar-press response. A rat presses down a little bar sticking out from the side of a metal box called an operant chamber. Any behavior that results in the bar being pressed-whether the rat does it with its paw or its nose-is called a bar-press operant because the effect (the bar-press) is the same.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey